Bolstering federal support for agricultural conservation programs is critical if the nation wants to bring its coastal “dead zones” back to life, a coalition of environmental groups said in a recent report.

The report said agricultural pollution is the leading threat to 13 of the nation’s 17 most polluted coastal bays, including the Chesapeake and the northern Gulf of Mexico. It called for increased spending on conservation programs as Congress begins updating the nation’s agricultural policy — something the Bush administration also signaled it would support.

Right now, the report said, most farmers seeking federal help to implement practices that would reduce nutrient runoff, are rejected because of a lack of money. “Most farmers and feedlot operators are willing to do their part to clean up America’s most polluted bays, but they are repeatedly rejected when they seek federal help,” said Scott Faber, a water resource specialist with the group, Environmental Defense. “Congress should reward farmers when they take steps to clean up our bays.”

Congress has begun to consider a new Farm Bill that is expected to set agricultural policy for the next decade, during which the nation will likely spend around $170 billion on agricultural programs.

In their report, “Bringing Dead Zones Back to Life: How Congress, Farmers and Feedlot Operators Can Save America’s Most Polluted Bays,” the groups Environmental Defense, Restore America’s Estuaries and American Rivers contend that stepped-up support for conservation measures is essential to help farmers stem the nutrient-laden runoff that degrades coastal waterways.

The report notes that farms and ranches cover more than half of the land in the United States, “so it is no surprise that agriculture dramatically impacts the water quality of many of the nation’s bays.”

Although many conservation practices can reduce farm costs, benefits are often uncertain, and some actions impose new, short-term expenses on farmers, such as the need to purchase special equipment. As a result, incentives are often needed to encourages these practices.

But the report said that 90 percent of the $17 billion Congress spends annually on agriculture goes to subsidize one-third of farmers who grow commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.

“These subsidies encourage farmers to convert range and pastureland to produce crops that require heavy fertilizer applications,” the report noted. Instead, the report said, Congress should spend more to “reward environmental stewards” who want to take environmentally sensitive lands out of production and participate in other conservation programs.

The Bush administration recently signaled that it wants to refocus the Farm Bill and put more support behind conservation programs as well.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled a 120-page report, saying the government was spending too much money on traditional price support programs for big grain and cotton farms, and should instead step up support for conservation programs that benefit small farmers.

The report noted that most Farm Bill spending actually helps subsidize large farms. “Highly efficient commercial farms benefit enormously from price supports, enabling them to expand their operations and lower costs even more,” the report said. “Others have not received enough benefits to remain viable and have been absorbed along the way.”

At the same time, the report said that two-thirds of the nation’s farmland is in the hands of small– and medium-size farms, many of which benefit little from traditional subsidy programs. But those farmers would likely benefit from programs that support conservation measures that reduce erosion and runoff pollution, the report said.

That appears to put the administration at odds with the main version of the Farm Bill which has been moving through the House. That legislation would expand subsidy programs for grain and cotton farmers.

Although the bill would increase support for conservation programs, the levels proposed fall far short of what environmental groups and the National Association of Conservation Districts, which works with local farmers, would like. Further, critics charge that the conservation increases are paid for in large part by cuts to the USDA’s technical assistance efforts, which helps farmers implement the programs. That, they say, would effectively deny support to many farmers.

At a news conference releasing the report, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman would not address specific congressional proposals, but said the report was “our attempt to give a realistic assessment” of existing programs. USDA officials said President Bush personally reviewed and approved the report.

In the House, more than 130 members are supporting an alternate measure that would allocate $5 billion for conservation programs, more than doubling what is currently in the bill. In addition to expanding conservation programs, it would include money to encourage organic farming and to promote a “buy local” food program.

But because the added money would come from traditional subsidy programs, it has drawn opposition from some farm groups.

The Senate has not yet begun considering a new Farm Bill.